The Open African Innovation Research (Open AIR) network has received funding from the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Advanced Scholars Program (QES) to create new opportunities for emerging scholars. Open AIR is currently accepting proposals for short-term research projects that address Open AIR’s research questions on African innovation through the lens of gender equality, empowerment of women and girls, and inclusion of marginalized communities. Researchers will conduct their projects while based at one or more of Open AIR’s institutional hubs across Africa including our research centre at Strathmore University in Nairobi.

At CIPIT, our Open AIR research has focused primarily on the High Technology Hubs theme including the case study on open collaborative models of mobile tech innovation in Kenya. This work is ongoing from the previous year and involves a study of start-ups in the mobile tech ecosystem connected to high tech hubs. During the year, we conducted extensive research on the tech hubs scene which culminated in a comprehensive paper that lays out a framework for assessing tech hubs in Africa. This paper has since been published as an Open AIR working paper as well as in the NYU Journal of Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law. In the paper, based on their characteristics, development and factors for success, the hubs were categorized under three archetypes: company hubs, cluster hubs, and country hubs. “Open Collaborative Models of Mobile Tech Innovation in Kenya” seeks to understand the thriving mobile innovation sector, particularly what makes mobile innovation so attractive to developers in Kenya; whether openness or appropriation of knowledge through IPRs and other forms of protection is necessary to promote innovation and sustainability of mobile tech startups; and what innovation models would best serve this sector to ensure that startups are able to scale.

Similarly we have conducted extensive research on all existing information on the subject of mobile innovation in Kenya and has since produced a draft report. The draft briefly introduces Kenya’s thriving mobile tech space, describing it as one focused on low/ appropriate technology, which is relevant to the Kenyan population. It also examines the factors that led to the growth of mobile innovation in Kenya some of which include the influence of MPESA and the mobile market; the rise in number of open spaces and tech hubs where entrepreneurs can access funding and mentorship opportunities; improved internet infrastructure brought about by the laying of undersea fiber optic cables by the government; the rise in number of internet subscriptions and mobile phone usage among the Kenyan population; sociological factors such as the low number of Kenyans with bank accounts or credit cards, which together provided a fresh breeding ground for mobile money transfer; and the deregulation of the telecommunication industry in 1999. The draft also evaluates literature on the relevance of intellectual property (IP) in mobile innovation in Kenya where we have noted a consensus among the authors that Kenyan IP laws do not favor strong protection of software, where mobile applications fall. In regard to the relevance or irrelevance of IP to developers, there are divergent views from authors who find that developers are completely unaware and therefore disregard IP, and others who find that developers are keen to protect their innovations so as to forestall “copycats” and unfair competition.

Specific research and analysis of company hubs shall continue with the aim of mapping the hub environment in Kenya, enhancing our understanding of how such hubs govern the dissemination of knowledge and the hubs’ contribution to the sustainability and scalability of start-up businesses. Our team has identified and will continue to identify key persons in the technology scene with whom they will conduct in-depth semi structured interviews with the aim of understanding the effectiveness of high technology hubs and the start-ups that emerge from them.

We are also putting our research into practice with our recently launched plans to set up the Strathmore Makerspace, having interacted with several types of makerspaces, most notably the University of Pretoria (UP) Library Makerspace in South Africa and Gearbox in Nairobi. We are collaborating with the tech hubs and research centres at Strathmore University to get the new makerspace up and running.

For more information on the Open AIR QES Fellowship, including details on how to apply, please see here.